Saturday 4 May 2013

Next steps

Before I get started (re-started) with the novel, I want to enter the Bridport Prize, which is a competition for short stories, poems and 'flash fiction' (a story that is sub 250 words, in this case). I’ll be entering a short story - worth £5,000 if I win. Fat chance.

Each year they publish an anthology of the winners, and, needing all the help I can get, I bought a copy recently.

The thing that struck me is that while decent contemporary short story writers are undeniably deft in their use of language and make astute observations about human nature, they're also damn parochial in their outlook.

By this I mean they are almost always focused on human experience - admittedly weighty issues like death and infidelity and mental illness - but they never really stretch the boundaries of reality. Why can't a piece about heroes and monsters, about astronauts being blasted into space or explorers landing on a new continent be considered worthy of the title?
The stories in the anthology are also almost exclusively miserable as hell and their writers seem to think that a story cannot deliver a killer punch without containing some form of sexual deviancy.

Don't get me wrong. I think stories should examine just about anything and everything, from gritty realism to whimsical fantasy. But while novels encompass this vast expanse of the imagination, in my experience the short stories that win prizes these days do not.

Another thing that irks me is how static they are. They are like a very skillfully painted picture - enjoyable to look at, astonishing in its detail, but unmoving. The tableau the characters are stuck in plays out forever. Some of the stories also make very little sense, even if they make very little sense beautifully.

In under 5,000 words a story doesn't have to (can't) go far. But call me old fashioned, when I read a short story, I want to be told a story. The stories in the anthology, with the exception of the brilliant winner, are more like situations than stories.

My story will attempt to do something to rectify this problem (if indeed it is a problem), but I'm likely to fall into the other heffalump trap. If you have a look at the stories on this website, you'll probably see that my eyes are bigger than my word count when it comes to cramming in plot. Too much plot is probably worse than too little, but my real failing is on the linguistic side. To have a decent shot at the Bridport Prize, the language really does have to be exquisite, which is probably one reason why the plot suffers.

For this reason, I am forcing myself to go for a simple structure, and hopefully that will allow me the space to paint a picture. A moving, fluid picture.

No problem!

My story is about a man who attempts to be a good host to a party of high-class guests while convinced that one of them is trying to kill him. Watch this space for La Matadora.

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In other news, I have put up The Dragon, a story by seven-year-old Dan, who is much more likely to win the Bridport Prize than 23-year-old Dan. Read it here.

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